First it was Seattle, now Shell Oil will send two damaged Arctic drilling rigs to Asia for major repairs that could put at risk plans to resume a search for oil next summer off Alaska’s North Slope.
One of the rigs, the Kulluk, which has no propulsion system, was being towed to Seattle on Dec. 31 when it broke free amid fierce storms and went aground off Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Officials later refloated it.
A second drilling ship, one that moves under its own power, the Noble Discoverer, has problems with its propulsion system and could require an engine replacement, said Curtis Smith, Shell’s spokesman in Alaska.
“A number of shipyards in Asia have the available dry-dock facilities and capacity to best execute these types of projects,” Smith said.
Both vessels will be “dry towed” to the Asian shipyards, Smith said. That typically involves loading them onto larger vessels for transport.
Work to prepare the rigs for a first year of drilling last summer occurred at Vigor Shipyards in Puget Sound, and both rigs initially were going to return to Washington for additional work, Smith said.
It is unclear when the rigs will head to Asia, or whether they workers can repair them in time to drill this summer off Alaska’s North Slope, where Shell is working on a seven-year, $4.5 billion effort to find new oil.
“We have not made any final decision on 2013 drilling in Alaska,” said Smith. “The outcomes of inspections and the scope of repairs needed in Asia will decide that.”
The problems that have beset the drill rigs may strengthen the position of environmentalists who have repeatedly sued to stop or postpone exploration they say risks an oil spill that would be nearly impossible to clean up.
The repairs also could give the Obama administration more time to decide whether to allow Shell to continue operations in two Arctic seas after repeated accidents, failed inspections and mechanical problems, which have called into question the company’s safety management.
The administration has supported Shell’s efforts to explore what could be a huge new oil field with the potential to produce hundreds of millions of barrels of oil over decades.
But two separate federal inquiries — one into the grounding of the Kulluk, and a more general review of Shell’s safety controls and oversight of contractors — have also stalled its plans.
Shell executives said the decision to send the two drill vessels to Asia, where there are extensive dry-dock facilities, for repair work, was voluntary and they do not know the extent of the work needed.
For drilling to proceed, Shell needs two vessels, one to stand by to drill relief wells in case of a blowout. It would be difficult to find other suitable ships for drilling in the Arctic.
Shell executives said the Kulluk suffered damage to its hull when it grounded in a storm on Sitkalidak Island. Seawater also caused electrical damage.
The Noble Discoverer dragged its anchor last July and nearly ran aground on the Alaska coast. Four months later it suffered damage by an explosion and fire while still in port in the Aleutian Islands. In late November, a Coast Guard inspection team found problems with its pollution-control systems.